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Of dropping the gully cricket World Cup, and other tales of mimicking my heroes

Daily O
By Professor  

It was really only very recently, when I went through Sanjay Manjrekar’s book Imperfect, and Sujit Mukherjee’s Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer, that it struck me that my cricketing idiosyncrasies have persisted from childhood into adulthood.

For the nominally skilled but hyper-enthusiastic cricket player and watcher, both autobiographies (particularly Mukherjee’s) are a pat on the back. For the maidan/apartment complex player, like your writer, these are godsends.

These are books (certainly Mukherjee’s) for the kind of player who has expert comments on an Indian playing XI, but has never confessed to being rather scared of the leather ball; always preferring to play with the tennis or rubber ball. Here too, this writer confesses to having been the Kapil Dev-Wasim Akram-Ian Botham-Imran Khan-Richard Hadlee of rubber ball underarm cricket played in the apartment complex areas of northern Bombay in the 1990s (a sub-region that has given us Rohit Sharma).

Underarm cricket is a peculiarity of an overcrowded city like Bombay. During those hours of packed rubber ball cricket — on uneven blocks of concrete, mud and stone that was our cricket strip — the “wicket” behaved like Perth’s WACA wicket one ball and like the Feroz Shah Kotla wicket the next.

All our wickets were naturally supportive of “fast-medium”, “seam”, “swing” and “spin” bowling, if those terms applied to underarm cricket, that is. It was a bowler’s game.

If a batsman played an innings and was not out till the end (say of an eight- or ten-over an innings game), the opposition deemed him a “chabook” (superb) player. Any team total upwards of 40 or 50 was considered a big score. Every other delivery pitched leg and hit off.

During the early days of cable television in India in the early 1990s, we finally got to see non-India games like the Total One-Day International Series in South Africa (which had West Indies and Pakistan too). My fellow players and I’d watch Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis in their pomp and try to imitate them. Wasim and Waqar often covered the ball till the last point of release. Since I introduced such “techniques” in the games at the apartment complex, I’d often be the first to get selected in any playing XI (usually VII or VI).

When others tried the technique/method and failed, I’d instruct them like a veteran and tell them they had to hide the “seam” of the rubber ball. My alleged mastery over covering the rubber ball while bowling it, and “thumb” spin that I imparted on it, was so good that batsmen usually double my size and older were foxed by the “off-break” and “straighter” one that came out of the same action.

This was re-modelled sometimes so that batsmen who complained of not “sighting” the ball got a three-fourths view without getting a sense of the finger positioning that hid the intended direction of the ball. It felt great to be likened to the Wasim and Waqar of underarm rubber ball cricket bowling.

As I said, in those days, gully cricket was a bowler’s game. Unlike the mechanical IPL-style hitting today, a four or six was earned, and so was a shot for two or three runs. There were no runs behind the wicket. A six was if you hit the five-foot tall boundary wall directly.

You were out if you hit the ball beyond it into the other apartment complex. You were out if you hit a window pane of any flat straight on. You were out when you hit a ball in the air and if it hit an uncle watching the play with a plate of dhoklas.

The cricket strip was surrounded by apartment blocks. You hit a Tendulkar-like cover drive and took off for a run. But the ball, not unlike a hit in squash, could hit an apartment complex wall and get to a fielder or the bowler by the wicket, who’d collect it and put down one leg on the set of stones that formed the “stumps” at the non-strikers’ end and run you out!

These were conditions where Everyman discovered the Wasim-Waqar-Kumble-Warne in them. If the ball moved a little oddly, we’d all claim we saw “swing”. If it did a bit more towards the end of an innings, we’d deem it “reverse swing”. If a team lost from a winning position, especially one’s own, it was “match fixing”.

But I move away from the real point.                   

By the time Pakistan had won the World Cup of 1992 and Imran Khan lifted the glittering crystal trophy, I had entered my early teens and was in thrall of the man (much like Sanjay Manjrekar is in his book.)

I even began mimicking his mannerisms. A T-shirt with a tiger, let alone a cornered tiger, was hard to find those days, so I found a way to print the word “tiger” on a T-shirt and wore it while going to play sometimes.

And when the toss was done, even if I wasn’t the captain of the team I played for, I’d tell the team members — mimicking Imran Khan’s words during the pre-match toss with Ian Chappell at the 1992 World Cup — that “I wanted my team to play like a cornered tiger, because that is when it is at its most dangerous.”

After this declaration, I’d usually be made the twelfth man (“drinks boy”) by the bigger boys or be made the umpire or keep wickets. This was usually followed by giving cricket commentary for the match in a voice approximating the permanent pre-adolescent “unbroken” tenor of Sachin Tendulkar, with a lot of “well, you know, the wicket is good for batting and the ball is coming on nicely to the bat,” etc.

When one batted, one made the signature Tendulkar gestures, especially while taking guard (the one Harbhajan Singh made famous much later).

But my most memorable experiences playing gully cricket had to do with fielding and catching. And these happened at those odd games when an apartment complex team (“building”, as we’d call it), either on a Sunday or during a weekday of the summer/winter break from school/college, went to the local maidan to play against another building side. This usually entailed money. Each team put in a minimum of Rs 100, Rs 200 or sometimes Rs 500.

These were overarm bowling games, since we had more real estate to play on without the fear of breaking window panes. Sometimes, these became three- or four-team tourneys, played with a rubber or tennis ball with all the games getting over in a day from morning to evening, or these became Saturday-to-Sunday games.

When there was a breeze, and sometimes, even when there wasn’t, rubber and tennis balls “swung” in the air. If they deviated after landing on a pebble around the good length area, we’d see “seam” movement. But as I said, the best was left for the catching.      

One person, our weakest fielder, during a crucial moment in a crucial game got the easiest sitter of all time at mid-off (why was he at mid-off?). He missed the catch, as his approach to receiving the ball was that of a person making chapati dough. The ball came to him in what seemed like slow motion — not unlike the visual telecast of games one saw on Doordarshan — and he closed his fingers around it like he were clapping in slow motion. In terms of technique, it was an act of defiance and dissent against cricket fielding and catching. From such timidity came sporting travesty, temerity.

It was the drop of the century in gully cricket history.

The fielder said he had trouble sighting the ball, even though it was a blazing summer day and the catch was an opposite of a skier, a mistimed drive at chest height coming at the speed of a policeman in a Hindi potboiler during a crime scene. After the game, which we duly lost, this player was deemed a “match fixer” and “an asset to the opposition.” He was our Herschelle Gibbs to the opposition batsman’s Steve Waugh. He was our chapatti-pizza-dough flaring fielder, to whom the Steve Waugh batsman allegedly said, “You just dropped the gully cricket World Cup, mate.”

Over the years, I lost my fear of the leather ball and began playing serious school level cricket tournaments like the Giles and Harris Shield and the Bhagubhai Khichadia tournaments. In the big Azad, Cross Maidans of Bombay, so many teams played, they’d almost merge into one another. One team’s long-off became another’s mid-off. In boring games, the two fielders ended up chatting and misfielding. The coach hollered abuses at them.

At that impressionable age (though I am old now, and still impressionable), I had begun junior collegein Bombay (high school, elsewhere.) It was 1996 and Sri Lanka had won the World Cup. They had already shaken up the cricket world with a stirring show against a hostile Australia in the annual ODI tri-series Down Under. Although Imran, Wasim, Waqar, Inzamam and Sachin remained my heroes, Aravinda De Silva’s axe-wielding batting stance and gladiator-like visage, and him hooking and pulling the fastest bowlers on green wickets, left me awestruck.

I’d always feel I was De Silva if I played the hook and pull shots well. And a great confidence-boosting moment arrived when I consistently pulled one of the senior bowlers with good pace in the cricket camps I attended off the new ball on somewhat under-prepared practice wickets in the nets.

An uncle from America came visiting us. He asked me in his American accent about my game. I remember saying without a hint of irony that “I was playing the hook and pull well, my feet were moving well, I think I can face Wasim and Waqar now.”   

Cricket consumed me so much, I’d not get sleep the night before games and wake up in the early hours to shadow bat. Many of my non-cricket playing (but cricket following) classmates at school and college made fun of the cricketers’ tics. In the canteen, in the college corridor, by the balustrade, while watching television, I’d be making Wasim Akram bowling gestures or Tendulkar back-lift movements with an imaginary ball or bat. 

There is a clip on YouTube of an old game from the Independence Cup of 1997 that Pakistan hosted, involving the home team, Sri Lanka, South Africa and West Indies. At the end of the first innings, when South Africa bat, Akram yorks out the tail enders. The one that gets Allan Donald curls into him; the one that gets Pat Symcox next ball goes away, (South Africa eventually that game.) On his way back to the dressing room, Symcox removes his helmet and gloves. He frowns and with his left hand (he is a right-handed cricketer) makes the gesture of the ball swerving away from him at the last moment before his bat comes down to play it, escaping its trajectory to be bowled.

It’s the expression of a sportsman being castled by a master craftsman and doing a mini-mimicry of one’s own beautiful downfall. It’s a gesture I will never forget. I used it often to convey my feelings after an exam at college to my parents.